Jiminy Christmas, you think you’re going to begin your life over and do it right. But what if you never get past the beginning again?
No one gets past the beginning. Episode 7.09 of Mad Men is called New Business for a reason. It’s all about what is and is not new, and what is and is not business.
Did I love this episode? I was confused by it. I felt like I was down the rabbit hole, in a swirling prison with Don, Diana, Megan, and Marie, where everyone repeats, regrets, and starts over. Lather, rinse, regret. I thought “I don’t know what I’m watching.”
But is that a problem? I expected Elizabeth Reaser to be Neve Campbell, a one-shot season opener that informs us of Don’s state of mind. Most reviewers last week took “Di” to mean “die,” and to be a symbol of Don’s musings on death and Rachel. All of that symbolism precludes her becoming a real person, with her own grief, her own death to recover from. Don is enraptured by Diana, or, more accurately, by his ability to rescue her. She is, even before her stepped-out series of revelations, so clearly in need of rescue. But in the end, Diana doesn’t want to be rescued, she doesn’t want to feel better, and so Don has nothing he can give her. Not even a guide book.
These lost men are trying to buy new lives, and these lost women are trying to figure out exactly how much they must prostitute themselves in order to have lives. Commerce, prostitution, new beginnings, regretting the past, punishing and being punished, it’s all swirled up here.
Do I want a clear theme? Kind of no. I kind of don’t want the package wrapped up with a bow on it. People will complain that New Business was confusing, but they also complain when an episode is too “on the nose.”
Harry tries to buy Megan. Megan tries to get a new agent, but doesn’t want to pay quite that high a price. Marie feels that Megan isn’t “charging” Don enough, she takes, on Megan’s behalf, what her daughter “deserves”. For her own part, Marie sells her body to Roger in exchange for paying off the movers. “Please take advantage of me”, she says to him, paying off the debt. Don is buying or paying off everyone; a book for Diana or a million dollar check for Megan, they amount to the same thing, he is left with nothing, both emotionally and physically (that apartment shot in the end was both sad and hilarious).
As Don is writing his million dollar check, he doesn’t know, but Megan does, that his apartment is completely empty. Is that funny or tragic? She took him for exactly the ride Roger warned about, saying exactly the things Roger said she’d say. Roger, Don, Pete, maybe Harry—our collection of bitter divorced men with no new beginning in sight.
It’s no coincidence here that the first time Diana had sex with Don she thought he’d paid for it. Approximately a zillion commenters (Basketcases and elsewhere) referred to her as a prostitute, but that doesn’t strike me as correct. Diana is a waitress who was given so much money ($100 in 1970 is a lot more than $100 today) that she felt she had to put out when asked for it. Technically that’s prostitution, but she didn’t hustle it, ask for it, or offer another tumble for another hundred.
And then there’s Pima Ryan. Here I feel like the episode did go off the rails a little. She is a fantastic character, enticingly played by Mimi Rogers, but there is something surreal about the way she wanders through the episode, shaking everything up in a subplot that doesn’t even intersect with the main characters. Peggy and Stan’s Cinzano vermouth campaign is off in its own little corner, and yet Pima is here as a symbol: Of commerce and art, of hustling and self-promotion and the fine line between prostitution and paying for what you want, especially for women. A great character, like I said, but her strange little sideways engagement with New Business feels off. Past experience tells me, though, that when I rewatch a season, episodes gain strength. This may be a watch-it-twice one.
Pima says all art is selling something, but in the end, Peggy recognizes that Pima is selling herself first and foremost. Pima’s little sales effort doesn’t work on Peggy, who is unimpressed and who actually isn’t selling herself. “It’s just my job,” Peggy says, and in the end, that’s true, and that’s why she’s untouched by the rest of the shenanigans. Megan is expected to sell herself to act, and Marie sells herself just to get a moving truck, while Pima’s sales routine seems largely designed to keep people in her thrall. She’s doing it for art. The difference for Pima is, she’s in control, while all the other women in this episode are clearly out of control. They know they’re paying with their bodies, but only Pima seems like the one managing the negotiation. And Peggy, who is in charge without leveraging her female body, has no use for her.
They want to punish you. And then you get mad and you want to punish them, but you know it’s your fault.
Punishment. Failure. Megan’s evil sister calls Megan a failure. Don certainly feels like a failure as he paves the path of his second divorce with checks. Pete cheated his way out of marriage to Trudy, and now worries that his dates will turn out to be floozies.
None of the business is “new,” no matter how new it is. Everyone is trying for something new, but they keep going back to where they came from, and failing again. Lather, rinse, regret.
The most important bit, I think, is that we opened with Don and his boys. He sees Betty and Henry, happy together, with Bobby and Gene, and it is a floodgate of regret, written across Jon Hamm’s expressive face. Everything that follows in New Business is a part of that flood. Pete’s bitterness, Marie’s impotent theft, Megan’s mercurial mood swings, even Harry’s pathetic pass, it all comes from an inability to be truly new, an attempt to rewrite the past, all the while knowing you will fail.
Let’s see what the bullets have to offer:
Mitchell Rosen got married to a homely girl.The line is actually, Mitchell’s CO got married to a homely girl. Basketcase Old Fashioned cleverly observed “Guess we are to be treated to a cameo appearance by one of Don’s former mistresses each week” following Maggie Siff and Linda Cardinelli. I am hereby taking bets for next week.
- Don persists in being handier in the kitchen than Betty.
- Don also has a little bit of a sideburn thing going on—he’s definitely not Roger, but he’s not still living in the ’50s either.
- Caroline needs Shirley’s help. Is this foreshadowing of something bad happening to Caroline?
- Someone is going to come up with a real-life photographer upon whom Pima is based before I even fall asleep tonight. I guess I’ll find it in comments in the morning.
- At the same time as everyone is struggling for a new beginning, Don says twice in this episode that it’s “almost over.” Which is more or less what AMC says about Mad Men every time we go to commercial.
- I kind of want to give Pete quote of the week for the two already cited here—I mean, for Jiminy Christmas alone!–but instead, I’ll give it to Stan for “I apologize that the models have so many teeth. I know you’re not used to that”–that is some sick burn!